Iron is needed by the body to produce red blood cells. It’s a component of haemoglobin in red blood cells which carry’s oxygen around the body.
There are two different types of iron - Haem iron and non-haem iron. Haem iron is better absorbed by our bodies than non-haem iron. This absorbable iron is found in animal foods. One of the richest sources is liver, but it’s also found in beef, lamb and pork. Sources of non-haem iron include green leafy vegetables such as kale, egg yolk, dried fruit and fortified foods like breakfast cereals.
When it comes to iron deficiency anaemia, symptoms may come on suddenly, or may gradually build up over time. The most common symptoms are tiredness, shortness of breath, paleness and palpitations. Other symptoms include headaches, hair loss, tinnitus and mouth ulcers.
If iron deficiency anaemia is left untreated, it can affect your immune system, making you more susceptible to infection. Pregnant women with low levels of iron are also more at risk for complications during and after pregnancy, so it’s really important to monitor levels to ensure they’re in the right ranges.
There are a few things which can lead to iron deficiency. One of the most common cause in women is monthly blood loss from menstruation. Women are particularly at risk if they suffer from particularly long or heavy periods. Other causes include bleeding from stomach ulcers, bowel cancer or stomach cancer.
Iron deficiency anaemia is the most common type of anaemia but there are also other types such as pernicious anaemia which is caused by a deficiency in vitamin B12. Symptoms are similar to that of iron deficiency anaemia and include shortness of breath, fatigue and paleness.
So should I supplement with iron?
No, iron is a supplement which we don’t recommend supplementing with unless you have a diagnosed deficiency or have been advised to do so by a professional. Ireland also has a very high rate of haemochromotosis. This is a condition where the body stores too much iron leading to a build up in the body. This condition is caused by inheriting a faulty gene from a parent. For individuals with this condition, taking an iron supplement would be quite dangerous over time as you’re adding extra iron to a body already overloaded with it.
The best way to see if you’re iron or B12 deficient is to go see your doctor and get a blood test. This will test blood will look at different things. If anaemia is present, you may have lower levels of haemoglobin as well as reduced numbers of red blood cells, Ferritin is a protein that stores iron in your body and levels may also be low if you’re deficient in iron.
If you are found to be iron deficient, then a supplement is usually recommended alongside dietary strategies. Iron supplements can be hard on the digestive system and commonly cause constipation. Choosing a chelated iron supplement can help to ease this.
It’s also important to find the reason why you’re iron deficient, as it may be caused by a serious condition requiring medical attention such as undiagnosed coeliac disease or a bleeding stomach ulcer. If diet is contributing then increasing intake of iron rich foods is a good idea.
Red meat is one of the most commonly consumed sources of iron in the diet, so including sources such as beef, lamb and pork regularly are a good and safe way to ensure you’re getting in your RDA of iron. Plus, you can pair these foods with a source of vitamin C such as baby potatoes, bell peppers or green leafy vegetables to enhance the absorption of the iron from these foods.